The Allure of the 1980s

Christopher Vardy

When we remember, represent or consume the recent past, we often do so through the alluring prism of nostalgia. In Ali Smith’s short story ‘astute, fiery, luxurious’, the narrator reflects on what is effaced by nostalgic retro-memory of the 1980s:

We were watching an I love 1980s programme, one we’d watched twice before. We were talking about how it had become possible that there never was a miners’ strike, a war, a right-wing landslide, a massive recession or any huge protest march; instead there were only Rubik’s cubes, Transformers and a puppet TV compere shaped like a rat (Smith 175-176).

Smith’s short story exemplifies the common and persuasive opposition between commercialised nostalgia and political engagement – in this case, engagement with the divisive legacies of Thatcherism. Similarly, Joseph Brooker characterises nostalgic cultural production like I Love the 1980s (2001) or Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010) as widespread and ‘wilfully apolitical’, forging ‘a pastel 1980s bleached of strife’ (Brooker 213). 

Rubik's Cube

Retro-memories: the commercialised nostalgia of 1980s Rubik’s cubes and Transformers elides a decade of political struggle 

[Image by Naoki Hiroshima under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

However, there is an increasingly prevalent counter-narrative to such nostalgia: the presentation (or reassertion) of the 1980s as a bleak, uniquely determining and even dystopian period of contemporary British history. Rather than the Rubik’s cube, this alternative characterisation of the decade emphasises systemic violence, poverty, social unrest and industrial decay, with political battles like the 1984-85 miners’ strike being figured as ‘The Third English Civil War’ (Peace, 2004: 137). Variants of this dystopian imaginary are employed by contemporary novelists including David Peace, Irvine Welsh, Gordon Burn, Cathi Unsworth, Anthony Cartwright and Denise Mina, as well as films and TV series like This is England (2006, 2010–), the Red Riding Trilogy (2009) and The Field of Blood (2011). These texts can be seen as revisionist – reactions against nostalgia’s numbing ubiquity. However, their stark, violent critiques of the decade also demonstrate the political allure of the dystopian 1980s. Twenty-first-century novels like Welsh’s Skagboys (2012) and Peace’s Nineteen Eighty Three (2002) offer coruscating indictments of Thatcherism, but do not neatly break with nostalgia – they are imbricated with it.

Despite their differing political inflections, the newspaper headlines marking Margaret Thatcher’s death demonstrated an ironic degree of consensus about her significance: whether she ‘saved’ or irreparably ‘divided’ the nation, she was undoubtedly heralded as ‘The Woman who changed Britain’ (anon., The Independent) and ‘the great transformer’ (Wolf, n. pag.). Divisive, transformative, unique: the adjectives applied to Thatcher are equally attached to the decade that she dominated: ‘the contest was over; Britain’s political future was settled’ (McSmith 301). Even if its legacies seem ever more toxic in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the socio-economic paradigm shift of the 1980s is routinely understood to determine contemporary British life. Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia ‘(from nostos – return home, and algia – longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or never existed’ (Boym xii). This fantastical ‘home’ is often focalised through idyllic, even pre-lapsarian concepts of childhood and the recent past. However, as Blake Morrison notes, ‘home’ is not necessarily something you desire ‘to get back to’ – it can also be ‘some place you have as a child, and spend the rest of your time running from’ (Morrison 103). Both attitudes to ‘home’ position the past as a stable, explicable point of origin, be it disavowed or desired. And ‘the 1980s’ (so often metonymically interchangeable with Thatcherism) represents that stable point of origin for contemporary British culture: indeed, it increasingly serves as its dystopian origin-myth.

Lending Desk with VDU, 1980s

An overlooked draw of writing about the 1980s is the period’s apparent stability as an object of political critique

[Image by Mosman Library under a CC BY-NC license]

Thatcherism – an uneasily defined conjunction of ideology, domestic political expediency, globalising forces and populist nationalism – defeated the trade unions, converted the Labour party to the emergent neoliberal centre ground, and left Britain sharply stratified along economic, class and regional lines. The 1980s also saw the Soviet Union’s collapse and the so-called ‘End of History’ – perhaps more accurately understood as ‘the end’ of systemic global alternatives to capitalism and the consequent destabilisation of progressive models of history (Elliott 55-59). Contemporary novels often seek to understand and underscore these political legacies. However, another (often overlooked) draw of writing about the 1980s is the period’s apparent stability as an object of political critique. There is an eschatological appeal to the figure of the ‘End of History’ and the domestic political battles that preceded it (from Brixton and Toxteth to Orgreave and the poll tax riots), which offers rich material for historical novels that figure history as an oppositional – if not in this case progressive – process. E. H. H. Green convincingly argues that Thatcher – despite being an enormously significant political actor who helped shape a hegemonic project – was ‘a creature of her time, not the creator of it’ (Green 196). However, the opposite idea lingers in contemporary culture: she is conceptualised as an all-powerful figure, deeply malign or quasi-providential depending on one’s politics. How else could Cartwright’s polemical How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (2012) be seriously described in its blurb as ‘a devastating English twist on the dictator novel’? The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland captures Thatcher’s strangely nostalgic appeal:

[T]he era when hundreds of thousands would chant ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!’ [is] a vanished part of our past. There is no target so certain, so firm and Manichean to oppose any more, the politicians of today’s age too middling and consensual […] Which means that [Thatcher’s funeral] might not have been a day of mourning for the Tory tribe alone. Those who opposed her, those who came of age in the heat and clarity of that 1980s fight; perhaps they feel a strange loss too (Freedland n. pag.).

Freedland exemplifies the contemporary longing for a ‘real’, explicable and locatable political dominant against which the left can define itself – for Thatcherism’s illusory ideological ‘clarity.’ The putative leftist Ian McEwan sums this up: ‘it was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her. She forced us to decide what was truly important’ (McEwan, n. pag.). For McEwan, the ‘extravagant fixations’ that Thatcher prompted were culturally and politically significant: she so ‘mesmerised’ writers that they ‘could barely see past her’ – a ‘hypnotic hold’ that is ongoing (Ibid).

1977 bw photo

Ideological clarity? We can discern a contemporary longing in fictionalisations of Thatcher for a locatable political dominant against which the left can define itself

[Image by rollingstone64 under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

However, this continuing inability to ‘see past’ Thatcher and Thatcherism highlights the potential problems with twenty-first-century dystopian figurations of the 1980s. Erica Burman analyses our cultural obsession with traumatic childhoods, highlighting ‘the familiar problem that once the past is seen as the traumatogenic place of origin it is all too easy to conveniently “forget” present day sequelae/causative circumstances’ (Burman 104). By conceptualising the 1980s as our ‘traumatogenic point of origin’, we risk taking the ‘End of History’ at its word: not only ignoring the impact of the almost quarter-century since Thatcher left office, but believing that – to quote one of her own favourite dictums – there is no alternative and there never will be: the 1980s saw to that. So a model of the past defined by horror and trauma is not necessarily anti-nostalgic or politically challenging. Rather, it can be another form of nostalgia that positions the past as an originary trauma – an inescapable, determining force.

Welsh’s Skagboys (2012) and Peace’s Nineteen Eighty Three (2002) illustrate these critical issues. Skagboys is a prequel to Welsh’s iconic debut novel Trainspotting (1993), published almost two decades later. It focuses on the lives of Renton and Sick Boy during the 1980s: their political experiences, relationships and first forays into the drug use that will metastasise into heroin addiction. Thatcherism is a looming, complex presence in Trainspotting – a novel that figures the social atomisation, deindustrialisation and consumerism of Scotland in the 1990s through the uneasy metaphor of addiction. By contrast, Skagboys clearly positions Renton’s decline as a product of the political struggles of the 1980s. In the novel’s opening section, Renton travels with his father to picket Orgreave during the miners’ strike – the emblematic battle of the decade’s emblematic industrial conflict. The coming defeat is heavily foreshadowed: Renton’s grandmother makes rounds of sandwiches ‘like it’s a funeral we’re gaun tae!’ (Welsh 8). On the picket line ‘thaire’s a sudden stillness in the air as the chants fade away; ah look at the plant and it feels a bit like Auschwitz and for a second ah get the queasy notion that we’re gonnae be corralled intae it’ (Welsh 11-12). The state-sanctioned violence, when it comes, is appalling: ‘This isnae about policing or containment, this is a war against civilians. War. Winners. Losers. Casualties’ (Welsh 18). On the journey home, appalled by the horrors he has witnessed, Renton gets off the coach on a motorway hard shoulder:

The cars shoot past us heading north, as I rip the COAL NOT DOLE sticker fae ma denim jaykit. The tear on the sleeve isnae too bad; it kin be stitched back nae bother. […] Ah climb up the bankin ontae this overpass, n look over the railins doon the motorway at the cars n lorries ripping by underneath me. Ah’m thinking we’ve lost, and there’s bleak times ahead, and ah’m wonderin: what the fuck am ah gaunny dae with the rest of ma life? (Welsh 21)

Renton chooses stasis as opposed to either the collective political struggle that he fears (and we know) is doomed to defeat by Thatcherism or the frantic movement of everyday social and economic life that the motorway represents. The rip left by removing the miners’ badge may be easily stitched, but losing the class war will have lasting effects. As readers of Trainspotting will understand, the void created by this loss of momentum will be filled with heroin. The association is further emphasised by this opening section’s framing narrative – Renton is remembering his formative experiences at Orgreave as part of a failed ‘Rehab Journal’ (Welsh 3). Skagboys re-signifies the narrative arc of Trainspotting from the perspective of a twenty-first-century figuration of the traumatically formative 1980s. What was a forceful but nuanced interrogation of the links between addiction and socio-economic forces becomes a causal narrative that emphasises the inescapable brutality of the 1980s class war. Renton is co-opted to be a potent but perhaps overly neat symbol of the defeat of the strike – and by association that of the labour movement: his uncertain future becomes our own deracinated political present. 

Packard Plant

The inescapable brutality of 1980s class war: dystopian post-industrial landscapes dominate David Peace’s Nineteen Eighty Three

[Image by g-squared under a CC BY-NC-SA license]

Nineteen Eighty Three – the final novel in Peace’s Red Riding Quartet – interrogates the relationship between Thatcherism and British society by deploying child abuse as an extreme metaphor for a society structured by exploitation and abuse. Corrupt policemen cover up the crimes of paedophiles with whom they have shared business interests – the agents of the state prioritise profit over protecting vulnerable children: ‘everybody knows and – […] Nobody cares’ (Peace, 2002: 404-405). Sexual abuse is also used to figure the traumatic and inescapable power of the past. Clare Kemplay’s murder in 1974 is uncannily mirrored in 1983 when Hazel Atkins disappears. Eventually, Hazel’s killer is unmasked as the son (and victim) of the paedophile who murdered Clare. His abusive past irrevocably defines him, and (given Peace’s propensity for grisly corporeal metaphors) is literally inscribed on his body: ‘His chest in bloody scars, it reads: 0 LUV’ (Peace, 2002: 397). In Nineteen Eighty Three subjects endlessly revisit, are stuck in and seem doomed to repeat their pasts – while the novel’s fractured literary form and structure, and intense, paratactic style mirror the social and personal fragmentation that define its presentation of recent history.

The relationship between Thatcherism and the novel’s conspiracy/abuse narratives is complex. Dystopian post-industrial landscapes dominate the text: ‘the boarded-up pubs and closed-down shops, the burnt-out bus stops and the graffiti that hates everything, everywhere and everyone.’ (Peace: 2002, 26) Juxtaposed with descriptions of these same communities years earlier, the effects of the early-1980s recession and rampant deindustrialisation are acutely visible. However, Nineteen Eighty Three does not present Thatcherism as an originary trauma – rather, it is the logical outcome of a predatory culture, resignifying Thatcher’s own argument that ‘the root of the approach we pursued in the 1980s lay deep in human nature, and more especially the nature of the British people’ (Cartwright 241). In 1969, policeman Maurice Jobson characterises Yorkshire’s systemic personal and professional corruption as ‘a lullaby in a local tongue – Hate’ (Peace, 2002: 151). ‘Hate’ is increasingly pervasive as the novel unfolds, defining not only the North’s graffitied spaces but acting as a synonym for a society increasingly defined by violence and exploitation. By the novel’s final pages, on Election Day 1983, this ‘hate’ has reached its Orwellian apogee, as the Tory slogan ‘New Hope for Britain’ (Peace, 2002: 8) is starkly refigured:

You get out of bed. You walk across the floor upon your knees. You switch off the radio. The TV too –

The Hate:

‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony –

The Hate:

‘Where there is error, may we bring truth –

The Hate:

Where there is doubt, may we bring faith –

The Hate:

‘Where there is despair, may we bring hope.’

Radio off. The TV too –

The branches have smashed the pane.

The rain pouring in –

No hope for Britain.

(Peace, 2002: 404).

Thatcher’s electoral triumph in 1983 is figured as the moment that ‘hope for Britain’ and progressive futurity ended decisively. However, the novel challenges simplistic periodisation. Thatcherite discourse – represented by the Prime Minister’s unlikely invocation of Francis of Assisi when elected in 1979 – is underscored and punctuated by ‘hate’, but the novel demonstrates that this ‘hate’ structured British society long before the 1980s. Thatcherism translates ‘the hate’ into hegemony – it is its political culmination rather than its origin. Nineteen Eighty Three questions the deeper provenance of the political transformations we associate with the 1980s.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

No hope for Britain? Both dystopian and nostalgic figurations of the 1980s undermine agency in 21st-century politics

[Image by Walt Jabsco under a CC BY-NC-ND license]

Both dystopian and nostalgic figurations of the 1980s seductively position the decade as the stable, determining foundation of contemporary life: twenty-first-century Britain’s origin-myth. Thatcherism did radically transform Britain – possibly irrevocably – and historicising its ideological claims and corrosive legacies is politically important. However, dystopian presentations of the decade as the ‘End of History’ not only emphasise the continuities of neoliberal politics, they risk effacing post-1990 history. Furthermore, imbuing the 1980s with an inescapable, deterministic power undermines agency and the scope for twenty-first-century politics. Novelists like Welsh and Peace offer welcome respite from the apolitical retro-1980s, but their starkly dystopian narratives are problematic as well as politically alluring. Skagboys simplifies Trainspotting’s nuanced exploration of Thatcherism by causally linking Renton’s heroin addiction to the labour movement’s defeat. Nineteen Eighty Three is bleaker still, but more historically sophisticated, figuring Thatcherism as not only a watershed moment, but as a force responding to and darkly interrelated with British society. Throughout the novel, subjects are trapped and defined by their irrevocably traumatic pasts, and this determinism is transposed into a bleak vision of national politics (and twenty-first-century life): after Thatcherism, there is no hope for Britain.

CITATION: Christopher Vardy, “The Allure of the 1980s,” Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2013) (“Thatcher’s Legacies” Special Issue): n. pag. Web. 21 July 2013,

Christopher Vardy is studying for a PhD at the University of Manchester that explores contemporary figurations of neoliberalism, the ‘End of History’ and the 1980s. He has published an article on sexuality, space and radical politics in American fiction of the 1990s, and has contributed a chapter on nostalgia and retro in David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green to the upcoming Twenty First Century British Fiction edited collection.

Works cited:

Anon. The Independent, 9 April 2013

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Brooker, Joseph. Literature of the 1980s: After the Watershed (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010).

Cartwright, Anthony. How I Killed Margaret Thatcher (Birmingham: Tindal Street Press, 2012).

Burman, Erica. Developments: Child, Image, Nation (London and New York: Routledge, 2008).

Elliott, Gregory. Ends in Sight: Marx/Fukuyama/Hobsbawm/Anderson (London: Pluto Press, 2008).

Freedland, Jonathan. ‘Lying here, she is one of us’, The Guardian, 17th April 2013 [accessed 9th June 2013]

Green, E.H.H. Thatcher (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006).

McEwan, Ian. ‘Margaret Thatcher: we disliked her and we loved it’, The Guardian, 9 April 2013 [accessed 9th June 2013]

McSmith, Andy. No Such Thing as Society (London: Constable, 2010).

Morrison, Blake. As If (London: Granta, 1998).

Peace, David. Nineteen Eighty Three (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2002).

Peace, David. GB84 (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).

Smith, Ali. The first person and other stories (London: Penguin, 2009).

Welsh, Irvine. Skagboys (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012).

Wolf, Martin. ‘Thatcher: The Great Transformer,’ The Financial Times, 8 April 2013 [accessed 8 July 2013]:

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